Two weekends ago I was called for jury duty. I was invited to be part of the Online Film Critics Panel, which was a sub-jury for The Toronto Youth Shorts Film Festival. The Online Film Critics Panel was responsible for selecting two awards, The Critic’s Choice Award and the Youth Emerging Artist Award, while the main jury was responsible for four of the major awards handed out at the Awards Gala. Selecting two awards should be an easy process right? At least that is what I thought going into the festival…I could not have been more wrong.

The four other members on the Online Film Critics Panel were James McNally (Toronto Screen Shots), Genevieve Walker (Scene Creek), Addison Wylie (Film Army) and Titania Plant (Classic Flick Chick), all of whom are exceptional and knowledgeable film writers. As you could imagine, having five different perspectives, and thirty-one short films to choose from, made selecting the top five finalists for the Critic’s Choice Award a bit of a challenge. We decided to each come up with our own top five shortlist and then see if we could come to a group consensus before ultimately picking a winner. While our plan of attack was sound, the fact that the majority of the shorts were simply outstanding did not make things easy.

The Online Film Critics Panel with festival director Henry Wong

After much discussion, we finally settled on five films that all offered their own unique charms. Bad Movie was a fun documentary that looked at why some people are drawn to bad movies such as The Room. Director Trevor Chatrand did a good job of breaking down the various levels of “bad movies” while talking to those, such as the Red Letter Media guys, who have watched their share of gleefully bad cinema. Breaking Over Me was a wonderful drama that looked at how people cope with the loss of a loved one. The film not only hit all the right emotional beats, but also feature fantastic acting all around. Jordans or Justice looked at the current “sneakerhead” obsession of Nike’s Air Jordan shoes. As I have already talked about the film on this site, I will merely say that it holds up very well upon repeat viewing. Open Invitation explored one Korean student’s attempt to circumvent conscription. Easily one of my favourite films of the festival, director Jae Woo Park crafted a film that is immensely engaging without ever losing sight of the important political overtones. The last film on our list, and eventual winner of the Critic’s Choice Award, was director Ben Brommell’s Tainted. Brommell’s documentary was an eye opening look at the unfair policies that currently exist within the Canadian Blood Services organization. The film questions why men who have had at least one sexual encounter with another man are not allowed to donate blood. While this policy may have seemed effective in the early 80’s, it comes across as extremely outdated today, especially when you look at the advancements in blood testing technology.

Looking at our top five films, you will notice that three of the films are documentaries. This was not intentional, but more of a testament to the number of quality documentaries that were at the festival. One film that grew on me more when thinking about it a few days later was Mile Zero. It offered a rather interesting look at the Canadian landscape through the eyes of two friends trying to raise money for prostate cancer awareness. The film really got me thinking about how little of Canada I have actually experienced. I also was quite taken with the film Feathered Bullets which somehow made me care about the fate of peregrine falcons in Canada. The environmental impact on life was also nicely documented in Dolime Dilemma: Water Proof? which examined whether or not a mining company is damaging the pure water source in Guelph. Directed by Kristy Neville, the film features both interviews with residents of the community as well as representatives of the mining corporation. Though many of the documentaries focused on serious matters, not all of them were without a sense of humour.

One of the films that came really close to making my personal top five was A Slice of Life. The film offered an amusing look at the competitive world of pie baking competitions. What really sold the film for me was seeing director Emily Powell deciding to take up the challenge herself and attempt to enter her own pie in the competition. The film never takes itself too seriously while still managing to treat the subject matter with respect. Another film that managed to pull off this same feat was Our Best Friends, a documentary that focused on people recounting the loss of their pets. Though I think the film could have been cut down by two stories, there is no denying that it was an entertaining film. Director Aiden Jeans incorporates various styles (i.e. live action, animation, etc.) in his film to give each reenactment a unique feel. This worked especially well in the animated segment involving the story of a hamster, by far the film’s best segment.

Speaking of animation, the festival featured a strong selection of animated shorts. While Vernal Equinox, a film I reviewed in a previous post, took home the best animation award, there were several other animated shorts I quite enjoyed. The first was a delightful film called Bubble Trouble about a boy whose obsession with bubble gum becomes a tool for escaping detention. The film is funny, and at times disgusting, without ever feeling overly sentimental. I had a similar reaction to the film Blind Luck about a seeing eye dog who may not always have its owner’s best interest in mind. Amare was another short I enjoyed that looked at how a seductress tries to break up a couple’s happiness. Although director Katarina Antonic stated in the Q & A that she was challenging herself to make the film within the confines of a particular running time, it would be interesting to see where she could have gone with the characters given more time.

While I could go on about many of the other films at the festival that I enjoyed, especially the dramas and comedies that screened, I will merely say that the films at this year’s festival honestly exceed my expectations. I also have a new found respect for people who serve on festival juries in general. As film lovers, we have a tendency to sit back and criticize some of the choices that the jury at Cannes or Sundance make, however we rarely consider how hard it can be to come to a consensus when everyone has different films they want to champion. Regardless, serving on a festival jury is an experience that I would recommend to anyone who has the opportunity to do so. I got to meet and interact with some great people and watch a bunch of stellar films…which is what you want out of any film festival experience.